How to Pack The Perfect Carry On Bag

I’ve been traveling since before my memory even serves. Road trips and flights were a regular thing in my family, and for a while, a bag sat at the foot of my bed, always half-packed or half-unpacked, depending on how you looked at it.

In recent years, I’ve made it a challenge for myself to see how quickly, efficiently, and most of all, sanely I can get through to my gate, and I like to think I do pretty well considering I usually have a couple of cameras and a computer with me. Packing a carry-on purse or bag is a lesson in necessity and choreography: You want to have everything you could possibly need, and nothing you don’t, and you want to be able to get everything in and out of those dull grey bins as smoothly as possible without holding up the impatient line behind you. The dance of of the TSA.

Packing List

I get a certain thrill from checking my main piece of luggage. Once it’s been properly weighed and tagged, I bid my things farewell (with fingers crossed that they’ll be there to meet me on the other side), and continue on my way, feeling lighter with just a shoulder bag and the following items:

Headphones: They may not be pretty, but a pair of noise-cancelling headphones is key for flights, especially cross-county and long-hauls. I learned this the hard way, having once flown a red eye from Seattle to Boston seated in the very last (non-reclining) row next to an (understandably) unhappy toddler. A solid set of headphones will cancel out a fussy seat-mate and help to muffle the roar of the engines.  If you’re not one for socializing, they can also signal that you’d like to be left alone by anyone sitting close by. Before you depart, load up on podcasts (I like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, The Moth, How Did This Get Made, and My Brother, My Brother, and Me), white noise apps, which can help you sleep, and new music you’ve been meaning to check out.

Water Bottle: Stash an empty (BPA-free) water bottle in your bag and fill it up at a fountain after you get through security. You’ll stay hydrated in the drying airplane air and save money by not having to purchase water at the food court.

Birks & Socks: We love our Birks and socks for anytime, but the look is especially essential for air travel: A versatile pair of Birkenstocks can be easily slipped off for security, and the addition of socks will save you from having to walk through barefoot. Once you get on the plane, the combination will keep you warm in fluctuating temperatures.

Extra Necessities: If it hasn’t happened already, it will: You will eventually lose your luggage. You might even lose your luggage in Detroit at 2 am in the middle of winter (true story). Ever since that debacle, I always stash an extra set of intimates (bra, socks, underwear) in my bag, along with concealer, eyeliner, mascara, and deodorant, just in case.

Travel Journal & A Good Book: Take a break from your laptop or iPad and keep yourself busy by filling out your travel journal or catching up on that book you’ve been meaning to read. I’ll admit to also stocking up on magazines once I’m through security, too.

Packing List  

Shown Above: Savoy Weekender Bag, Atticus Leather Wallet, Boyfriend’s Embrace Cardigan, Rounders Sunglass, Arizona Birkenstock, Heathered Highland Sock, Grey Gardens Underwire Bra.

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8 years ago
8 years ago

Great list, I too am a frequent flyer!

I’d also add moisturizer/lipbalm to that list because man can your skin feel dry in the middle of a 14-hr flight. I always pack a few snacks + a sweet treat for that craving you know you’re going to get at some point, and You must invest in a bag with a sturdy strap! Carrying my camera + laptop gets so heavy but is always a must. (I just don’t trust putting them in my checked luggage…)


8 years ago

Might be a little paranoid, but I have always had a versatile outfit stashed in my carry on – not just a set of intimates (though that’s a great idea). Even if it’s just an extra tee or small dress and I wore jeans/leggings on the plane. That way things can be changed up! Haven’t lost my luggage, but I know it will happen one day.

8 years ago

Love this, Thank you! I’ve never thought of the extra intimates, great idea! I always pack some sort of snack as well. Protein bars are my go to for the carbs and proteins I may need. I tend to get hungry every 3 hours. I happen to love my pillow case from home, so it gets folded up in my carry-on, then placed on my pillow where I travel. Also it works if you are stuck somewhere, if you can stuff your sweater in it for a quik snooze in a random stop.

8 years ago

Love it!

8 years ago

I swear by serum to combat the dehydrating atmosphere of the plane, antibac hand cream and lipbalm because my lips get as dry as the sahara. Plus an eyemask in case I get the opportunity to sleep.

8 years ago

Nice list! I like to pack all of my stuff in a carry on, however, and carry an extra bag for my essentials, such as toiletries, iPad, and extra underwear. I like to travel very light. Even if I’m about to spend two months in my destination, I make sure I fit everything in this small wheeled carry on I have, sometimes even leaving free space for any purchases I might surrender to. It’s all about versatility and a little planning! :) I never end up with a lost luggage paper form anymore!

8 years ago

Great tips! I would add a pair of leggings rolled up tight. I spilled a cup of coffee on myself years ago and it was really nice to have something to change into.

8 years ago

Love this post – so so helpful, and insightful. I would never think to bring aboard an empty water bottle- you are a genius.

Warm Regards,

8 years ago

This list is essential! I love the tip about lip balm in the comments too, nothing dries out lips quicker than changing climates.

8 years ago

Great tip! I always bring all of this stuff as well. Seconding what people said in the comments about lip moisturizer. I usually pack one that’s in a tin so I can also use it for my hands if I need to. A little spray bottle with water (and maybe conditioner/coconut oil) is helpful to spray your face if you’re feeling extra dry.

8 years ago

Great ideas mentioned here! For me, lip balm is a must. And I always bring my toothbrush and a zip lock baggie with an old face cloth inside so I can freshen up during long hauls. I really liked the idea of a face spritzer, too! (Would TSA let you bring that on though?)

8 years ago

This is so helpful and necessary. Thank you for sharing it.